OFFICE OF THE SHERIFF
History of the Office of Sheriff
The Office of Sheriff is amongst the oldest known institutions of western governments. The story begins in medieval England, when Alfred the Great (A.D.871-901) organized his kingdom into "shires" or counties so as to more effectively govern the realm.
The King's next order of business was to appoint his royal representative within the Shire to administer
and enforce the King's Laws, maintain order, head up the local military, collect taxes, settle disputes
(quasi-judicially) amongst the subjects, and to arrest and imprison or otherwise punish those who broke the laws or violated the orders of the King. This person was known as the "Reeve."
To effectively carry out the duties imposed upon the Reeve (which frequently required more than one
person to accomplish), he was vested by the King with the ability to enlist people to assist in the process. Thus was created the concept of "Posse Comitatus," or power of the county.
Thus, the Office of Sheriff is firmly rooted in English Common Law. The English word "Sheriff' is derived from the ancient Saxon words "shire- reeve." At common law and by tradition, the "Shire Reeve" or Sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer of the county.
It is interesting to note that in A.D. 1215, when a group of rebellious noblemen forced the despotic King
John to sign the Magna Carta, 27 of the 63 clauses in the document dealt with the power and authority
granted to the Sheriff.
When the first English settlements took root on these shores in 1620, the Pilgrims brought with them
their desire for religious freedom and to exercise their rights as "Englishmen," as well as their legal
In the first days of the Plymouth colony, the position that most closely resembled that of sheriff was
Captain Myles Standish. Captain Standish was not a pilgrim or "saint" as the separatists referred to
themselves. He was an outsider or "stranger." He was a military man by profession, and his job was to
be the protector and defender of the settlement, and to maintain the internal order of the colony.
In the County of Plymouth, the office of Sheriff was formalized in 1692, when by royal appointment,
John Bradford was installed as the first High Sheriff of Plymouth County.
After American independence in 1776, the Office of Sheriff continued to exist largely unchanged as an
institution of our local government. The Office of Sheriff was formally recognized in Article IX (9) of the
Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts of 1780 (the oldest written constitution still
governing anywhere in the world), and later amended from an appointed position to an elected position
by Article XIX (19) of the Articles of Amendment in 1855.
Thus was born the Office of the American Sheriff.